January 5, 2014

Free Caruso!

No, I haven't turned political and the title of today's post is not demanding the immediate release of actor David Caruso from jail. (Though come to think of it, some might suggest that his years of godawful acting on CSI: Miami deserve a life sentence in Actor's Jail...) Nope, I refer to the iconic operatic tenor of all time, the legendary Enrico Caruso.

The great Caruso (1873-1921)
My mission is to tell you: DON'T WASTE YOUR MONEY BUYING RECORDINGS OF ENRICO CARUSO.  Did you know that his complete discography is available for download absolutely free? You can download every note he ever sang right onto your computer and burn, baby, burn as many CD's as you wish.

Gotta love the Internet...

Just go to Internet Archive and you will find "The Collected Works of Caruso, Part I". What awaits you there are one hundred MP3 files of 78 RPM and cylander recordings of Caruso in opera and song. "But wait!!", as they say on late-night infomercials, "That's. Not. All!!" If Part I wasn't enough tenorial splendor for you, click on the link for Part II and wallow in twenty-nine more recordings. Click on any MP3 track and gorge on a feast of immortal singing.

The best aspect of this site is that with a few mouse clicks, you can acquire your own digital set of the complete Caruso. Here's all you have to do:

  1. Create a folder in which to store the audio files.
  2. Once you click on a listed MP3, right-click anywhere on the screen as the track is playing.
  3. On the resulting menu, click "Save as" and stash it in your folder.
It takes just minutes to load all 129 tracks onto your hard drive, and it costs you nary a cent.

Wrong Caruso... probably can't sing...
And as for the tracks... it's the mother-lode for us opera addicts.  Some of my readers will already have heard many of these recordings, but for others the name Caruso is a just a name from distant history. He belongs in the archives of yesteryear along with the race horse Man O' War or baseball stars like Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth and, as such, may seem irrelevant to much of today's public, constantly obsessed with latching on to "The Next Big Thing".

Well, Enrico Caruso WAS the "Big Thing" a century ago, and even a cursory exploration of this collection demonstrates why his reputation dominates any discussion of great opera singers. He was blessed with a voice which managed to convey its basic timbre and character despite the primitive recording technology of the day, incapable of capturing all the overtones that account for the resonance in a trained voice. Dio mio! What would that voice sound like if we could hear him live and in person? It would be epic, I'm sure of that.

After all, it's still pretty astounding even in these recordings. One noteworthy aspect of this artist is his versatility. Hey, voice experts out there: how many living tenors currently before the public could shine in dramatic roles like Manrico, Radames and Samson, yet still manage the light, perfumy, delicate lines of Nadir's aria "Je croix entendre encore" from Bizet's Les pêcheurs de perles? I can't think of any. Yet Caruso pulls it off.  In fact, throughout his repertoire, he boasts an effortless line in piano passages whenever the music calls for it - even in the dramatic fach.  Other famous tenors, say for instance Giovanni Martinelli, sang with more effort and far less dynamic contrast. Of all the celebrated tenors from the onset of the age of high fidelity, I think the artist most resembling Caruso in timbre, versatility and artistic personality is the Swedish tenor Jussi Bjoerling.

I find Caruso's strongest interpretations to be those roles in which the dignity of the character he's portraying matches the essential dignity I hear in the tenor's diction and vocalism.  I've often heard his voice described as having a "baritonal" sound, i.e. darker than one expects in the tenor range, but for me it's more a question of this dignified persona than any real resemblance to a baritone. I'm speaking of characters such as Radames (the sober and noble warrior), Andrea Chenier (the brooding poet), Samson (the godly champion) and especially Otello (the tortured governor of Cyprus). Fortunately, we get to hear quite a bit of his Radames, enough to suggest what a complete performance would amount to: the Aida tracks include "Celeste Aida", the duet with Amneris, and the complete Tomb Scene.  This is singing of such vocal and stylistic authority that we understand why Puccini regarded him as his preferred tenor of choice for his later operas.

The great spinto roles of Turiddu, Cavaradossi, Canio and Rodolfo also find him in his comfort zone. Again, we get a generous dose of scenes from La bohème, including "Che gelida manina", the "O soave fanciulla" duet, the quartet from Act 3 and the Marcello-Rodolfo duet from Act 4.

Another insight I've gleaned from sampling the collection: American popular song has come a long way, baby. A longgggggggg way...  A few of these tracks represent an early attempt at what became known as "crossover" recordings, with Caruso painfully taking his best shot at the English language in truly dreadful and schlocky "pop songs" with names like "Your eyes have told me what I did not know". That's the actual title of track #129 - word! I didn't make it up. Let's face it, "California Girls" works much better as a catchy title, hands down.  

Other similar crossover experiments: "For you alone" and "Dreams of long ago".  Let's just note that none of these has a beat you can dance to, and Enrico sounds like he's going to sprain something twisting his tongue around American English. Oh well, we want the complete Caruso, right? Darn straight we do. Oh, one oddity I have to mention: the tracks include Caruso singing a bass aria - the "Coat aria" from Bohème, thus re-creating an onstage moment from a live performance in which the bass playing Colline lost his voice and Caruso filled in, singing the solo with his back turned to the audience.

As with any mortal human being, not every track finds Caruso in his best vocal estate; I was disappointed with his "Donna non vidi mai" from Manon Lescaut; he sounds a bit droopy and not really as passionately ardent as we expect of the young des Grieux. And there are, I must observe, moments in which he is a bit tentative in approaching difficult passages, like someone driving 45 MPH in the right-hand lane of an interstate highway.  BUT - when he was at his best, the singing is beyond memorable and capable of making the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, even now, a century later.

If you've not heard Caruso before, you might want to start with Enzo's aria "Cielo e mar" from La Gioconda, in which the tenor sings with ease, a thrilling top, and a sense of abandon. Good stuff. But whatever you do, keep listening! Click on his Verdi, his Puccini, his Donizetti, his Mascagni, his Leoncavallo, his Bizet, until you have a full portrait in your mind's ear of why Enrico Caruso really may have been the King of Tenors.

AND IT'S ALL FREE! FREE, FREE, FREE!!!!!  <pant pant> (Sorry - got a little over-excited there... what can I say? I like me some free opera...)

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